Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Wuhan to lead emergency efforts as coronavirus deaths in China rise to 80

Sophia Yan
Medical staff wearing clothing to protect against a previously unknown virus walk outside a hospital in Wuhan - AFP

China’s premier Li Keqiang arrived in Wuhan on Monday to lead emergency efforts on the ground against the coronavirus outbreak, as the national health commission confirmed 2,744 cases with total deaths rising to 80 as of midnight on Sunday. 

Mr Li has been put in charge of the ruling Communist Party’s new “leading group,” tasked with directing containment response nationwide, according to state media. 

To scale up capacity to treat patients as complaints mount that the sick are being turned away from hospitals, the country’s state planning agency has said it will invest 300 million yuan (£33.2 million) for the construction of hospitals dedicated to treating the virus in Wuhan. 

Plans already in place for two new hospitals to be built in a fortnight are expected to add 2,300 patient beds in the city. One facility is due to be completed in the next few days and will be placed under military rule when finished, according to state media. 

Officials have locked down several cities in Hubei province, including Wuhan, the provincial capital in efforts to stem the outbreak. But the cities were not sealed off until after millions had travelled away to visit family for the Lunar New Year holiday, including an estimated five million from Wuhan alone. The government has extended the week-long holiday to February 2 in an effort to keep people at home and contain the disease.

Given the restriction on travel, the governments of the US, France, Japan, South Korea, and Australia are working to evacuate their diplomats and citizens from Wuhan. A 230-seat charter flight carrying Americans is expected to depart Wuhan on Tuesday and land in San Francisco. 

The Foreign Office has updated its travel guidance to advise against all travel to Hubei Province and states: "If you are in this area and able to leave, you should do so." 

The virus has spread across China, infecting people of all ages, including a nine-month-old infant in Beijing, in the first confirmed case of a baby falling ill. Cases have also been discovered in more than a dozen countries, with the US now reporting five total  infected with the virus. 

Hong Kong officials have begun denying entry to travellers who have visited Hubei province over the past two weeks in an effort to prevent disease spread into the special administrative region, which was hit hard during the Sars epidemic in 2002 and 2003. The ban does not apply to Hong Kong residents.

Some Chinese cities have institute a mandatory requirement to wear face masks in public places as a prevention measure. 

Scientists outside of China and Chinese health officials have said those infected may not show any symptoms, making it more difficult to screen for potential cases.

Researchers continue to race to identify the source of the outbreak. Out of 585 samples collected from the seafood market in Wuhan, suspected to be the source of the outbreak, 33 tested positive for the new coronavirus, suggesting it originated in wildlife sold there, China’s center for disease control and prevention told state media. 

While the World Health Organization stopped short of declaring a global health emergency last week, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Saturday he was on his way to Beijing to meet officials and health experts dealing with the crisis.